Still healthy, after all these years

by Stephanie Gartelman

FUKUOKA — Passing your twilight years in Japan used to entail long days of contemplation and an austere diet of tofu. Sound dull? The good news is that doctors these days recommend an active social life for a happy, healthy old age. The bad news is, according to medical practitioner Magoe Ando, you’ll still need to adopt a strict diet — and well before your hair turns gray.

For 40 years, Ando has advocated a diet of unrefined, low-calorie foods and, at 83, he’s a sprightly example of its apparent benefits. Born in Niigata Prefecture in 1918, he was an only child and spoiled with fat- and sugar-rich foods. He believes this exacerbated his already sickly disposition. After moving to Fukuoka aged 15, in his early 20s he began experimenting with his diet to improve his health.

What initially steered his experiments was a study he read on the Hunza people from the mountain valleys of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose lean, nutritionally balanced diet is believed to be why they are among the world’s longest-living peoples. After adopting eating habits similar to the Hunza’s, Ando’s condition improved vastly. The diet he began then and still advocates now as a doctor merges with macrobiotic principles. Derived from the Greek “macros” (large) and “bios” (life), the word “macrobiotic” was first coined by Hippocrates and has been used throughout history. Since the late 1920s, however, it has come to mean a diet of fresh, nonprocessed whole foods, as defined by Japanese writer-philosopher George Ohsawa, the founder of modern macrobiotics. Ohsawa advocated such a diet in the belief that it cleanses the body of toxins that can lead to chronic illness. However, in its strictest form, a macrobiotic diet can be so limiting as to cause nutritional deficiency. Today, Ohsawa’s principles are usually used only as a guideline.

In Ando’s talks and writings, he illustrates the value of a macrobiotic-style diet by referring to studies begun in the 1970s into the astounding longevity of the people of Yuzurihara, a remote village in Yamanashi Prefecture. At that time, Yuzurihara’s very fit octogenarians lived on a varied yet rudimentary diet of grains, yams, vegetables and freshwater fish. Yuzurihara’s elderly typified the sound health of prewar Japan, when many deaths (usually from pneumonia or other infections) were attributable to inadequate medicine. However, that generation’s 50- and 60-year-old descendants, who had lived urban lives and eaten more refined foods, showed a far greater incidence of cancer and heart disease.

While there is scant statistical data linking macrobiotics to the prevention of cancer or heart disease per se, the correlation between food, medicine and health has been valued in Chinese and ayurvedic (traditional Hindu) medicine for thousands of years. Attracted by this holistic approach since opening his practice, Ando Clinic, in 1950, Ando has combined dietary advice with Western medicine, acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In 1952, he launched the nonprofit macrobiotic food association Shizen-shoku no Kai, becoming among the first in Japan to try to spread the concept of the potential of natural food to prevent serious illness. Since then, he has written two books detailing studies into, and his own observations on, macrobiotic food’s potentially life-prolonging benefits. He has also made television appearances and held countless workshops on the subject.

Following macrobiotic guidelines, Ando recommends that meals comprise 50 percent unrefined grains such as brown rice, 10 percent fish or meat, 10 percent legumes (peas and beans) and 30 percent vegetables, seaweed and fermented byproducts such as miso. (Organically farmed produce is preferred for its higher mineral content.) Ando also upholds the “shindo-fuji” principle — literally, “inseparability of person and region” — which is based in Buddhist belief. This posits that locally farmed produce is optimal because it reaches consumers quickly, so leaving little time for vitamin content to diminish. Local produce is also seasonally appropriate, e.g., watermelon is available in summer, when it can cool the body, and vitamin A-rich pumpkin in winter, when it can warm it. Today, Ando is known among doctors from Kyushu to Hokkaido for his pioneering work. For the most part, however, he stays out of the public eye, limiting himself to outpatient consultations at the clinic where he still works five days a week.

Now heading most of Shizen-shoku no Kai’s public activities is its brisk and bright-eyed deputy chair, 72-year-old Shigeko Katanasaka, who says the association places emphasis on teaching preschoolers and their parents healthy eating habits. Ironically, she notes, seniors tend to be less willing than the young to give up refined foods and sweets. “When I began teaching nutrition 25 years ago, old people were disgusted at how much oil went into mayonnaise and at the richness of Western cooking,” Katanasaka recalls. “Understandably, they now think it’s strange that I’m telling them to eat brown rice. But I say it’ll make them live longer and stay in better health, and they usually listen to me,” she says with a laugh.

Now, more than ever, they should be learning Ando’s dietary principles. About 17 percent of Japan’s population is aged 65 or older, and the government is increasingly looking to preventative medicine to lighten its nursing-care burden.

Ando, meanwhile, continues to develop treatments for both the body and the spirit to help us live longer, healthier lives. At his clinic, as well as sticking to a proper diet, patients are encouraged to “listen” to their bodies, enjoying occasional rich desserts or French dinners, and to stay socially active. “We’ve even held talks on laughter and had guest magicians,” says Katanasaka. “After all, enjoyment and a stress-free mind is as important for a healthy old age as physical health.”

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